Catfish meuniere, Randall Grahm, and Spy Valley

Honest wine

Honest wine is the best pairing for honest food.

The most important lesson I ever learned about seafood came from the late, much loved and much missed Merlin Kleinpeter: If you can ?t buy it from Robert at Bayou Seafood, she used to say, then don ?t buy it.

Which was Merlin ?s way of telling me that fresh is what matters, and that any supplier who wasn ?t honest about things like freshness wasn ?t worth my time and money. If the crabs weren ?t good that day, then Robert told her so, and Merlin didn ?t buy them.

I mention this because food and wine are inextricably linked, and not just about which wine goes with which food. Pairing wine with most takeout pizza, which never tastes as good as you think it should, is one thing. That ?s what $10 grocery store merlot was invented for.

But pairing wine with honest food ? food that someone cared about and that required them to make an effort when they prepared it — is another matter entirely. More, after the jump:

Because honest does not equal price or celebrity status, in either food or wine. I ?ve had $100 bottles of wine that were as dishonest as a street corner grifter, wine made not to please the people who bought it but to please the winemaker. And I ?ve eaten at high-end restaurants where the chef cared as little about his or her customers as his customers understood nuclear physics. There is very little honesty in either; just ego and that curious post-modern American attitude that what someone does is the most important thing in the world because they do it. And if someone else does the same thing? They could care less.

But if you ?re lucky and a little smart ? and pay attention when someone like Merlin shares her wisdom ? you can find some of that honesty in a dinner that doesn ?t cost a fortune, and where the food and wine provide pleasure not just for that evening, but for a long time after.

The classical dish, of course, is sole meuniere, but I live 300 miles inland in Texas, and whenever I buy fish I hear Merlin in my ear. Who knows where the fish came from and how long it took it to get here? I long ago stopped believing fish counter employees, who never met something that wasn ?t hours-old fresh. The catfish, I knew, was from Mississippi, the shipments were regular, and when it comes to catfish, farm-raised is an improvement.

So catfish floured and seasoned, then saut ed in the cast iron skillet in a little butter and olive oil until just browned enough. Working quickly, taking the catfish from the skillet, adding more butter and olive oil, squeezing in the lemon juice, swirling the skillet and pouring the pan sauce over the fish. I served it with rice (which is how Merlin did it, brilliantly, with the local speckled trout), and a green salad tossed with lots of fresh herbs from what was left of the garden and drizzled with homemade vinaigrette. The first course was roasted peppers mixed with olives, capers, and bread crumbs.

Nothing complicated, nothing to send me to the specialty grocer in a fit of panic. Yes, I did roast the peppers, but that ?s 20 minutes in the toaster oven and 10 minutes taking the skin off after they steam. I was more worried that the peppers were going to cost $1 each than about the process. (And the peppers were on sale, too.)

An honest dinner, with quality ingredients made to the best of my ability. So what to do for the wine? The wine closet and its samples didn ?t offer much ? grocery store pinot grigio, over-oaked chardonnay, a couple of trendy high-alcohol whites. So I made the wine store rounds — checking prices, visiting with employees, looking for what ?s new. And I was in luck, for two of my favorite wines were there, and they usually aren ?t. It ?s as if they were waiting for me for this dinner.

We drank Bonny Doon ?s 2011 Vin Gris de Cigare ($15, purchased) with the first course, a rose I always forget about because it ?s even more difficult to find than the rest of Randall Grahm ?s wines. It ?s one of his best roses, tasting more Old World than New, with subdued, cranberry fruit. In this, it had more than a striking resemblance to sparkling wine made with pinot noir (without the bubbles, of course) ? austere and fresh and dark. Which is a neat trick, since there is no pinot in the wine.

The catfish got Spy Valley ?s 2011 sauvignon blanc ($15, purchased), which is not only my favorite New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but one that is surprisingly misunderstood. It’s long and practically subtle for a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, without the searing blast of grapefruit that people associate with the Kiwi style. Instead, it has as much grassiness as citrus in the front, a very restrained tropical middle (mango?) and the chalky finish that is part of a great sauvignon blanc. This wine is why scores are dumb; at this moment, with this dish, it was perfect, and it would never get anything more than 88 or 89 from the Winestream Media because, well, you know, it ?s only sauvignon blanc.

Again, wines that were as honest as the food ? no phony scores to decode, no winespeak to decipher, no stupid prices to pay. In fact, this was such a wonderful experience that I haven ?t made the catfish since. I don ?t want to be disappointed if the next dinner doesn ?t measure up to this one.

Photo courtesy debsch via stock.xchng, using a Creative Commons license

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